Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Visit to Oakland

Last week I visited my son and daughter-in-law in Oakland.  I arrived on Wednesday evening and they picked me up at the airport after their day at work.  It was a glorious warm evening – the sun not yet set and the moon just rising in the sky.  We drove home and ate a delicious meal – pasta with a homemade tomato, basil and garlic sauce and a glass or two of wine.  My son is a vey good cook and he made the meal while my daughter-in-law and I just sat in the kitchen and chatted.   My holiday was a gift from them – just a simple visit – not for a special occasion like Easter or a birthday.  The visit was an opportunity to share a few days together.  This is one of the gifts of retirement – having time to visit the people I care about.

The next day I walked to the bus stop to catch the San Francisco Transbay bus.  It was a pleasant walk through my son’s older residential neighborhood.  The bay area is already in bloom – a good month or more ahead of Seattle.  I arrived at the bus stop in plenty of time.  Once the bus came we crossed San Francisco Bay Bridge in the sunshine.  The bus dropped me at the Transbay Terminal – just across the bay from Oakland and in the middle of the financial district.  My destination was a lunch engagement with a long time girlfriend who lives and works in San Francisco.  Her office is close to the Coit Tower and by my reckoning about a twenty to thirty minute walk. 

Walking in San Francisco is always fun and especially so on a sunny day.  The city brims with energy and purpose.  Virtually every block holds some sort of architectural and historical interest.  I walked north, paralleling the Embarcadero, along Beale Street and Battery.  I had time to kill prior to our meeting and I wandered aimlessly through the shops in Embarcadero Square and zigzagged the various streets, past small curio shops, restaurants and taverns gearing up for the lunchtime business.  I passed many pedestrians – everyone looked energetic and purposeful – busily talking to each other in apparent walking meetings; often grouped in twos and threes; all smartly dressed. 

Here and there I passed a street person – one woman in particular struck me in her contrast to the youthful business crowd.  She was sitting on the windowsill of an old  building, resting her feet and surrounded by an overfilled shopping cart and multiple stuffed bags.  She looked younger than me, with long somewhat unkempt hair and a long skirt and peasant type shirt.  I wondered what bad luck had led to her sitting with all her worldly possessions on the streets of San Francisco.  Professional-looking young men in business suits walked quickly by her – continuously filling the sidewalk with testosterone but apparently not noticing her.  But in truth, she didn’t seem to notice the young men either.

Coit Tower seen from below
I arrived a bit early for my lunch engagement and discovered I was immediately below the Coit Tower.  I could look straight up and see the iconic structure overhead high above the street level.  This stark white art deco structure is a San Francisco landmark and always gives me a little thrill of recognition.  Sort of like spying the Seattle Space Needle out of the corner of my eye in my hometown.  I decided to climb the steps that lead to the tower from the bottom of Sansome to the top of Telegraph Hill.  I started up the staircase full of energy and discovered I was in a garden.  Not just any garden but a garden full of spring blooms – Jasmine, Camellias, Calla lilies, all types and colors of roses, cherry trees and goodness knows what else.  I paused to take pictures and looked back down the way I had come.  There, below me, beyond the buildings was a perfect view of the Bay Bridge.  I climbed more – soon I was hot and glad I didn’t bring a jacket.  The stairs meandered among small streets that hung off the steep hillside – private courtyards opened from the public stairway through decorative wrought iron gates.  Here and there small birdbaths, pretty planters and the occasional wooden bench caught my eye.

The Telegraph Hill Steps
 The higher I got, the more people I encountered.  Clearly most people walk down the steps rather than climbing up.  It was an interesting mixture of people – many tourists like me – several Australians looking very fit in sensible shoes and several families with young children perhaps on spring break.  One family struck my interest.  The father was smoking and the distinct smell of Cannabis wafted up the walkway.  The young son, about six or seven clearly smelled it and asked his mother insistently, what is that smoke?  I smell smoke.  His mother didn’t answer him directly.  Instead she tried to distract his attention by pointing out the flowers.  But he was simply not interested at all.  After failing to get a satisfactory answer from his mother, he caught up with his father and asked the same questions.  It seemed ridiculous to me that the father was hiding the cigarette in his cupped hand.  Clearly the child knew the father was smoking.  The family group stopped and I passed by without hearing the resolution.

Either way when climbing a hill, it is definitely what goes up must come down.  When I finally got to the top I was amused to find that the tower itself was closed for renovations.  No matter.  I didn’t have time to extend my tour and arrive on time for my lunch engagement.  I needed all the time left to walk back down.

Soon my girlfriend and I met and we found a lovely restaurant in an old brick building.  My girlfriend unexpectedly lost her husband a month ago and we had much to talk about.  Losing a spouse, especially when you are both in middle age is about as hard an experience as anyone can have.  We have known each other almost forty years.  There aren’t really any words that can give a friend solace for that kind of dramatic loss.  My intent was and is just to be there to talk, to remember and to discuss what comes next.  That is one of the more curious things about loss.  For those of us left, life goes on with all its trivial and momentous elements.  It is just that it moves on without the person who is lost.  And that can be a very lonely reality.  I think it is important to just be there for your friends.

After lunch, I returned to the other side of the bay, I went grocery shopping and cooked a meal for my kids.  Nothing fancy but all new twists on traditional dishes – one I will describe was quite delicious.  It was sliced yam rounds coated with a little olive oil, topped with a mixture of chopped pistachio nuts, coconut, dates and garlic and roasted in a hot oven.  We took them out of the oven just before we sat down to the meal of buttermilk oven fried chicken and brussel sprout coleslaw.  Yum!

Looking through the Redwoods
The weekend passed peacefully with a series of outings and simple domestic activities – A spinning class at the neighborhood Y; weeding the garden; clothes shopping with my daughter-in-law at a 40 percent off sale; grocery shopping with my son; dinner with one of their friends; sitting and talking; swimming in the neighborhood swimming pool and perhaps one of my favorites – hiking on Saturday morning in Muir Woods north of San Francisco.  We hiked up a steep trail in full sun with views across to the Pacific Ocean and hawks circling overhead.  The dry smell of bay trees permeated the air.  Just when we were thinking we needed to slow our pace we reached the top of the divide and descended into a forest of ancient redwoods.  The last mile of the hike was a welcome flat path – with huge cathedral size trees and a babbling brook.  Perhaps my favorite part of the hike was from the top looking down into the steep tree-filled canyon with sunlight shimmering through the trees.  I can understand why this place is a National Monument.

All in all I had a wonderful weekend in a wonderful place with two wonderful people… and now today, it is the first day of spring.  It is even sunny and warm in the Pacific Northwest!

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